Fifty-three Years of Community Journalism in Merced County

John Derby never gave up on his dream

 Merced County Times Publisher John Derby.  Photo by Steve Newvine

 Merced County Times Publisher John Derby.  Photo by Steve Newvine

Six months after starting the Winton Times weekly newspaper in the early 1960s, publisher John Derby was ready to call it quits.

John worked countless hours gathering news, writing copy, selling advertising, and doing all the other things a small business owner needs to do.  

It was too much.  

He decided to end his dream of publishing a newspaper that focused on the positive aspects of life in Winton and the surrounding area.

Fortunately, a supermarket owner from Delhi asked him to start a similar weekly paper in that community.  John told him he was too late, his mind was already made up.  The store owner, who also was heading up the local chamber of commerce, promised to advertise in the paper every week if John started one in Delhi.  

With a one-year advertising contract signed by that store owner, John pressed on.  

He started that paper in Delhi and his small newspaper operation became a two- newspaper business.  

That decision not to give up would lead to what is now a five-paper chain in Merced and Stanislaus Counties.  

The weekly papers of Mid-Valley Publications are the only newspapers that are physically published in Merced County.  Mid-Valley Publications is an employee-owned company where twenty full time and ten part time workers apply their craft week after week.

 The slogan for all Mid-Valley Publications as stated on the front page:  The Power of Positive People.

 The slogan for all Mid-Valley Publications as stated on the front page:  The Power of Positive People.

The guiding principle for the Merced County Times family of papers is embodied in its marketing slogan: the power of positive people.  

The concept is frequently referred to as community journalism.  Crime and political reports are not emphasized as much as telling stories about good things happening in the cities and unincorporated areas of the County.

At a time when some newspapers across the country are struggling to hold onto readers who have many other options for receiving news, the County Times is making it work.  

“Some people say newspapers are a bad investment,” John told me.  “I think bad newspapers are bad investments.  Sure, we’ve had some rough spots, especially during the recession.  A lot of businesses went belly up, but we got through that. “

In addition to his publishing duties, John Derby writes a weekly column for the Merced County Times.

In addition to his publishing duties, John Derby writes a weekly column for the Merced County Times.

John is originally from New York.  

As a young man, he moved to California and went to college at Fresno State.  He worked at the Merced Sun Star for four years before starting that first paper in Winton.

Counting his time with the Sun Star, John has been gathering news in Merced County for six decades.  He has put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.  But he’s quick to remind anyone that his staff is critically important to the success of Mid-Valley Publications.

“I have a top rate staff.  We are an employee-owned company and we have great people.”

(front page of the newspaper-  Merced County Times.

(front page of the newspaper-  Merced County Times.

Over the years, John has had a front row seat at the major events and the big issues of the community. He says the significant stories he has reported on include the closing of Castle Air Force Base in the 1990s, followed by years of searching for the best use of the land at the Base, and the arrival of UC Merced a little over a decade ago.  

The biggest issue, from his publisher’s perspective, has been and will continue to be agriculture.

“Agriculture is so important to our area economy,” he says.  “And policies over water use and allocations are absolutely critical.”

John Derby has come a long way from those humble beginnings in 1964.  Those rough times during the first six months of his newspaper found him living with his first wife and two children in a mobile home trying to make ends meet.  

Thanks to that business owner from Delhi who committed to a year-long advertising contract, Mid-Valley Publications has endured through good times and bad.

“I’m a hard copy newspaper man,” he says as he responds to a question about the changing face of journalism.  “We’re a positive press, but that also means we stress fairness and recognize there is another side to the story.”

When the paper started in the fall of 1964, the nation was looking at the prospect of a Lyndon Johnson defeat over Barry Goldwater for president.  California Governor Edmund Brown was midway through his second term.  

The City of Merced had a population of around twenty thousand.  Gathering local information has not changed much (while on the phone or at a news event he takes notes with pen and paper), the way that news makes its way to the printed page has evolved.  

“I did a lot of writing in those early years on a Remington Noiseless typewriter my father gave me,” John told me with a laugh.  “That typewriter was anything but noiseless.”

A computer keyboard has reduced the noise, but John’s commitment to sharing the power of a positive people has only increased with time.